Thursday, July 31, 2008

Much fun with yolks at Abeno

Abeno Too
17-18 Great Newport Street
London WC2H 7JE
020 73791160

I wonder if anyone out there remembers the 'CharBar'? There are enough recent reviews knocking around to make think it still exists. My opinion of 'CharBar' is solely based on the GunWharf branch in Portsmouth. Over the time I spent living in Southsea we visited the place twice, and believe me the second time was just to confirm that it was definitely style over substance.

For those who have never heard of this "restaurant", allow me to enlighten you. The basic idea is that you are seated at a table with a large grill in the centre. This is heated up when you sit down. You are then asked to choice from a variety of meats, fish and a couple of veggie options. Your waitress then brings your choice to your table. Raw. She provides you with a helpful guide to timings and some cooking utensils and off you go!

Yes, you read that right apart from side dishes and desserts you do all the cooking yourself at this establishment. It's a brillliant moneyspinning idea but in reality its just dull and rather off-putting. And my gosh does it get hot! I've no doubt they make quite a percentage from the constant supply of drinks that are required to stop you from passing out!

So, that's the 'CharBar' - a big flop. Now take what little is good about that idea - your food being cooked in front of you and add a neat Japanese twist including super-skilled cooks/servers and you have 'Abeno'.

Yes, where the 'CharBar' bigs up its poor quality ingredients by allowing you the 'novelty' of overcooking them at your leisure, 'Abeno' offers a unique dining experience. The speciality of 'Abeno' is Okonomi-yaki; simply put a kind of japanese omelette -

"Okonomi-yakis' are variations on a theme, the theme being a base of cabbage, egg and dough with spring onions, ginger and morsels of 'tempura' batter..."


On this visit to 'Abeno Too' - they have another branch near the British Museum - we were seated along the counter. There are also individual tables, but they fill up quickly at peak times.

At the counter you sit on top of a hollow bench in which you can store your belongings while you eat. In front of you there are chopsticks, a napkin, a small metal turner (for cutting your omelette) and a hot plate big enough for two.

We ordered drinks and optedfor a starter of mixed salad. It's worth mentioning that whilst overall the place is good value, drinks are not cheap. Our diet cokes and apple juice were 2.95 each for a normal sized-glass.

For the main event, I choose a pork, kimchi (pickled cabbage) and prawn version, whilst the Veggie opted for the lotus root, mushroom and cheese. We could also have shared a large omelette between us or added rice, salad or various other side dishes to our selection.

The mixed salad was quite small but made up for it with its lovely lemon and sesame dressing. It was the perfect palate cleanser before our main dishes.

I can't tell you how much fun it is to watch okonomiyaki being created. What I especially appreciate is the complete transparancy of the meal - nothing is added to the dish that you don't see being mixed in in front of you. The cooks/servers are very friendly and very skilled at shaping and flipping the omelettes, adding the extra ingredients and decorating the end result. It's worth it just to see the tiny fish flakes 'waving' as they crisp up (they taste much better than they sound!).

The Veggie was very impressed with her choice. When the omelette is almost ready, the exotic mushrooms, cheddar, garlic slices and lotus root are stir-fried on the hotplate and placed on top of the dish which is then covered.

My thin slices of pork were sandwiched into the omelette and then flipped so it cooked through. As mentioned above the decoration adds a final flourish to the dish. Your server recommends what sauces to have and then swirls your choice on top of the omelette. I went for Japanese mayo, brown sauce (like HP), soy and fish flakes. Chilli sauce is also available.

I had also been hoping to try the gorgeous sounding desserts which include exotic ices and fruits, but just didn't have the room!

The bill excluding service came to approx 28 pounds. The average price of a main dish is 9 pounds, so whilst it isn't a proper 'cheap eat' it is definitely worth the money.

In conclusion, Okonomiyakis are fresh, tasty, healthy and filling. They would make great first date food if you want to impress in a non-traditional way, and you will have lots to discuss to break the ice. Oh and don't worry about getting all hot and bothered as they have fans in the restaurant and the hotplate doesn't exude too much heat, unlike somewhere else I could mention!

The writing on the wall: 9 out of 10

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